Tuesday, July 13, 2010

St. Louis Blues

Recorded July 13, 1954
Track Time 8:52
Written by W. C. Handy
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Billy Kyle, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Barrett Deems, drums; Velma Middleton, vocal
Originally released on Columbia CL 591
Currently available on CD: Yes, the 1997 reissue is still the way to go (the one with the bonus tracks)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Hello and welcome to the three-year anniversary post for this madcap labor of love for mine. Three years ago today, I was a struggling painter with a head full of Louis Armstrong ideas and nowhere to share them. When I started this blog, I thought it would be fun to connect with other Louis nuts but otherwise, I thought it would be a fun way to pass the time, nothing more, nothing less.

Well, in order, this blog helped get me on WBGO radio, it got me to give presentations at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans, got me a book deal and finally, landed me in the job of my dreams at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Note to parents: get your kids a blog!

Usually on these days, I like to do something special, such as last year when I shared the audio to Louis's half-hour appearance on the BBC's "Be My Guest" radio program in July 1968 (still up, if you want to hear it...it's great!). I was thinking about what to do for this anniversary posting and couldn't come up with any ideas until I began poking around Jos Willems's Armstrong discography, "All of Me." All of a sudden, it dawned on me for the first time in three years: my first post was on July 13, 2008. On July 13, 1954, Louis Armstrong recorded "St. Louis Blues" for the album Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy--the single track that blew my mind and started me on this path. How had I not realized this before?

Thus, it became pretty easy to put it all together. A question a lot of people ask me is, "How did you get into Louis Armstrong?" Well, that version of "St. Louis Blues" pretty much has everything to do with it. If you indulge me for a few paragraphs, here's the answer to that story.

I always like to say that I was born in 1980...and I've always hated just about all popular music made after 1980! My brother got me into Motown which kept me going into elementary school (my father still has a drawing in crayon I did in first grade of Stevie Wonder at the Apollo). Then I went backwards and got heavily into 1950s rock and roll, doo wop, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, you name it. Then when I got to seventh and eighth grade, I went WAY back to ragtime and especially to vaudeville and began listening to Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson (don't worry, I knew how to lie about hip-hop and alternative music, sparing me from many eighth grade beatings).

At the same time, I've always been an old movie buff. Well, in eighth grade, I went through a Woody Allen phase and saw the movie "Sleeper." When I heard the New Orleans jazz on the soundtrack, done by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, my goodness, I couldn't stop moving. I loved it but I didn't know what it was or where to go. Then, a few months later, I caught the "Glenn Miller Story" with Jimmy Stewart. Well, when Pops comes out and does "Basin Street," I was hooked. His singing was so magnetic but in the closing ensembles, I heard something that sounded like the music in "Sleeper." I decided to do some further exploration...

In October 1995, at the beginning of my freshman year in high school, I went to my local library and checked out a Columbia CD, "Louis Armstrong: 16 Most Requested Songs." It was a compilation of Armstrong's 1950s recordings for Columbia (liner notes by George Avakian, who is now a friend) and from track one, "Mack the Knife," I immersed myself in it. But all was well and good until I got to track 14, "St. Louis Blues" from the "Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy." That track, at nearly nine minutes long, completely wrecked me. With each passing minute, I felt my heart racing, until Armstrong's breathtaking rideout choruses. Something in my brain snapped right then and there. I went back to my library and began checking out every Armstrong disc they had. And the rest is history...

Flash-forward 15 years and here I am today. So though I was already digging Pops before that version of "St. Louis Blues," it was really that performance that made me feel a certain way about music and life that I had never felt before. And I still feel that way every time I hear Louis. And I STILL feel that way every time I listen to that version of "St. Louis Blues."

I don't think I have to get all blow-by-blow for this track as it pretty much speaks for itself. But I will add a few nuggets. First, one of the unsung heroes of the Handy album was its producer, George Avakian, whose pioneering skill with a razor blade brought the concept of splicing and editing music from multiple takes to the level of high art. However, on "St. Louis Blues," Avakian didn't have to use his razor once. Thanks to courtesy of George and David Ostwald, I was able to listen to the suriving session takes for the 1954 "St. Louis Blues," an absolute treat that perhaps Sony can share with the rest of the world someday (2014, Sony, is the 60th anniversary...you better be ready).

Anyway, after a bunch of false starts trying to nail the introduction, Louis and the All Stars caught a wave and rode it thrillingly for nearly nine minutes, producing a remarkably exciting take, leading to all the band members to shout, "Wail! Wail!" upon its completion. Let's just say if Norman Granz was in the control booth, that take would have been just fine and no one would have complained.

But fortunately, George Avakian was in the booth and after some discussions and such (which I deal with in my forthcoming--May 3, 2011, officially now--book), Avakian called for another take. This is what happened. This is what changed my life:

Phew, it still gets my heart racing. Pops's lead is simply magical in the beginning as he takes a full chorus, spurred on by the rocking drums of Barrett Deems. I should point out that after Velma Middleton's first vocal go-around, Louis leads the ensemble for a chorus, digging out one of his old blues solos, one he originally featured on "Terrible Blues" in 1924 and on the spontaneous blues from the 1938 Martin Block jam session with vocals by Jack Teagarden and Fats Waller (Muggsy Spanier also borrowed it for his tremendous Commodore version of "Memphis Blues" from 1944). Louis also played it during the first complete alternate take of "St. Louis Blues" so he definitely wanted it to be a part of this performance.

And how about Trummy Young! That must be one the filthiest trombone solos in the history of recorded jazz. Louis began performing this routine almost nightly in 1955 and though Trummy always sounded excellent, he never again got quite as down and dirty (Billy Kyle's descending comping also works well).

But Pops's rideout lead is something to live for. Those high notes, that tone, my goodness, with the band absolutely rocking behind him. Play it again. Play it LOUD.

Well, that's my story. As usual, (and I know this sounds like a Las Vegas lounge act), I couldn't do it without my readers so thanks to anyone who has ever written me even a single word of thanks or encouragement to keep this project pounding ahead for another years. And thank Pops for, without him, who knows where I would be today (penning an Al Jolson blog perhaps?). Thanks, again!


Anonymous said...

I don't remember precisely what it was that spurred my introduction to Louis Armstrong, but I do remember which CD was my first purchase: Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. The recommendation came from The All Music Guide to Jazz, which I still find a reliable source of music recommendations.

That was about a dozen or so years ago. Like you, hearing St. Louis Blues sealed the deal for me. I still have that CD. Apart from the music, the liner notes, written by George Avakian, himself, are a treat to read.

Thanks to your introduction at Birdland, it was my great pleasure to meet George last year. If only he had a blog, what stories he could tell!

Terry Teachout said...

Happy anniversary! Your blog made my book better--more I cannot say....admiringly, t

John P. Cooper said...

Happy Third!

Thanks for all the great blogging, observations and music!

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Ricky,

I'm 15 years old,French, and it's a BIG pleasure to read your post, listen Armstrong and read your words is mix of pleasure and i love that !

Thank you, and thanks Louis !